The 100 Best Indie Folk Albums

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ms.snm.jpg 50. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More (2009)
Sigh No More flutters to life with an apology. In an ethereal four-part harmony, the British foursome intones Benedict’s line to Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing: “Serve God, love me and mend,” and then the voices swell in unison: “And I’m sorry.” It’s one of the only pastoral moments on the band’s hour-long debut LP, but the sentiment lingers. More than anything else, this is an album bursting at the seams with gorgeous remorse. The tired snivels of the spindly-armed strummer have no place here; it’s an amped-up, bass-heavy, banjo-picking pity party made of the same violent stuff that once inspired a lusty 17th-century cleric to demand of his deity: “Batter my heart.” From that first flowery track to “Little Lion Man,” where frontman Marcus Mumford croaks: “It was not your fault but mine, but it was your heart on the line,” to “Timshel,” where he laments “Death … will steal your innocence,” it’s wide-eyed, giddy yawp of an almost saccharine nature. Lyrical subtlety is not Mumford & Sons’ strong suit, and it doesn’t matter at all. Sign No More works because it’s commanding in all aspects of its presentation. —Rachel Dovey

reading-writing.jpg 49. The Sundays – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (1990)
While Seattle may have been a noisy place in the early ’90s, there were plenty of pockets of mellow for lovers of independent music, and few as were as memorable as Harriet Wheeler and David Gavurin’s band from Bristol, England. With their Smiths-inspired melodies, chiming guitar lines and the magnetic vocals of Harriet Wheeler, the Sundays created enough buzz from their first club shows to become quickly involved in a bidding war among labels, with Rough Trade earning the honors for their debut, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. Nearly three decades later, it remains one of the defining British albums of its era. —Josh Jackson

antlers_3_300x300.jpg 48. The Antlers – Burst Apart (2011)
The Antlers’ fourth album showcases a band that had mastered the seductive art of building quiet texture into a crash of energy, reaching for the stars with every chance they get. “Putting the Dog to Sleep” might be the best song Peter Silberman has ever written—like most of his songs, it’s wrenching, dramatic and ultimately triumphant. He croons like a soul singer, his voice occasionally cracking under the weight of emotion, with each of his heavy admissions punctuated with a clashing guitar. Burst Apart is a record of big songs from a Brooklyn band good at generating big songs, but it was just as notable that they could be impressive without an overarching concept behind them. —Luke Winkie

i-and-love.jpg 47. The Avett Brothers: I and Love and You (2009)
For their artistic breakthrough, these future arena-fillers from North Carolina polished their scruffy Americana sound until it gleamed. The result: an overpowering acoustic album brimming with sadness and soul. “I was worried that I’d start crying while listening at work, but I waited until I got home,” a Paste colleague told me. That’s an accomplishment. The title track—a meditation on three little words—is a three-hanky affair unto itself. —Nick Marino

carrie-lowell.jpg 46. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (2015)
After the brash electronica of 2010’s Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens returned with a quiet, moody set of songs that, at first blush, conjured his music from the early 2000s. But there is something fundamentally different about Carrie & Lowell. It is urgent and spontaneous, featuring songs written in a rush of cathartic emotion on whatever instrument happened to be laying around. No three-minute orchestral intros to be written or historical facts to be researched here. It’s more Elliott Smith’s XO than Illinois—and like XO, it has its eyes focused squarely on death. It stares straight into the hospital rooms, regrets, cloudy memories and empty bedrooms—and dares to sing a quiet, beautiful song about them all. Perhaps that ended up being more ambitious than another “State Project” album could have ever been. —Luke Larsen

trials-van.jpg 45. Midlake – The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006)
After a debut of ’60s psych-pop revivalism dressed up with enough synthesizers and lo-fi sensibility to keep it modern, Midlake’s second album, The Trials of Van Occupanther, pulled up stakes, abandoned its late-’60s fairground, and moved a few years forward to the far less trod-upon terrain of the early ’70s. The album explodes with “Roscoe,” a forceful, assured song, unmistakably the product of countless hours listening to Neil Young, but polished to a fine Fleetwood Mac sheen. Next comes the soft-folk production of “Bandits,” a Nick Drake rip with a twist: singer Tim Smith makes no attempt to evoke the iconic and oft-copied wispy vocals of “Pink Moon.” As the album continues, the references start to melt into a pleasant mélange—CSN harmonies coexist peacefully with orchestral piano-pop flourishes and Midlake’s synthesized elaborations, all measured out and stirred together with perfectionist precision. —Thomas Bartlett

tune-yards-whokill.jpg 44. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l (2011)
At times, Merrill Garbus is Annie Lennox, and at others, she’s Prince. One thing’s for sure though—she’s always entertaining, and her powerhouse voice makes W H O K I L L one of the must-listens of the 2010s. She can do ethereal and understated better than most, but Garbus is truly in her element when she’s belting, her hurricane alto ripping through a uniquely layered soundscape of ukulele, bass, saxophone and percussion. On “Killa,” she proudly declares, “I’m a new kind of woman, I’m a new kind of woman, I’m a don’t-take-shit-from-you kind of woman.” It’s nearly impossible to listen to a tUnE-yArDs track and not feel empowered. —Bonnie Stiernberg

victoria-loose.jpg 43. Victoria Williams – Loose (1994)
Victoria Williams’s biggest moment in the sun came via 1993’s Sweet Relief album, where her songs were covered by Lou Reed, Pearl Jam, Soul Asylum and The Jayhawks to help raise money for health costs after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. One of those songs, “Crazy Mary,” would appear the next year on Loose, her third and best full-length. On it, Williams also sings a duet with her future husband, The Jayhawks’ Mark Olson, “When We Sing Together.” There’s a tenderness and fragility to these tracks that fits perfectly with her idiosyncratic lyrics, filled with an emotional depth, whether she’s singing about her dog, her grandfather, her crazy childhood neighbor or her soon-to-be husband—or just letting you know You R Loved. —Josh Jackson

cease-to-begin.jpg 42. Band of Horses – Cease to Begin (2007)
“Southern rock” has traditionally evoked muttonchops and the devil going down to Georgia, but the genre’s tapestry also includes the kaleidoscopic psychedelia of early R.E.M. and the reverb-limned keening of My Morning Jacket. Band of Horses arrived firmly aligned with the latter camp, but born of Seattle’s omnipresent rainstorms and attendant coffeehouse culture. Singer/guitarist Ben Bridwell, a born Southerner, convinced his bandmates to return to his native South Carolina, a place he fled after finding himself in a “whole bunch of trouble.” The band’s sophomore release, the Churchillian-titled Cease to Begin, marked a new chapter in Band of Horses’ development, as well as a shift in Bridwell’s writing, veering from the soft-focus impressionism toward a more narrative-driven style. More than anything, Cease to Begin represents the sound of a talented writer growing more comfortable in his skin and unafraid to name a song after ex-Seattle Supersonic Detlef Schrempf despite its elegiac, unrelated subject matter. —Corey DuBrowa

actor-happy.jpg 41. Vic Chestnutt – Is the Actor Happy? (1995)
He was killing himself to live before the notion was a bumper sticker, and now he’s a legend the wider world never quite found out about (even though he’s been covered by Madonna). Chesnutt was a rolling contradiction. His songs scanned like nursery rhymes but stuck—as he sang on “Betty Lonely” from Is the Actor Happy?, “like a flounder gig”—on polysyllabic turns of phrase that tease the ear as they beg for the Oxford English Dictionary. Elegant and ungainly, impish and morbidly depressed, flat-assed drunk and piercingly sober, his salient obsessions circled around private peculiarities and public personae, scrawled like graffiti on the wall of a gas station, glimpsed through the Spanish moss. His wounded warble was an epic surprise, too: sweeping like Marvin Gaye, in its way, and teetering with uncertainty—like a bastard Wallenda, who defied gravity out of sheer heart. —Steve Dollar

ccd_genuine.jpg 40. Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig (2010)
The Carolina Chocolate Drops formed in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C., and from that point forward the young trio was determined to a wider audience that African-Americans played a huge role in the nation’s stringband tradition. To do that, they dusted off a musical form seen today as either a novelty or the exclusive provenance of ethnomusicologists. To paraphrase Rakim’s immortal words, these Drops ain’t no joke: Their enthusiasm for the tradition is obvious even as the trio spans from traditional arrangements (the rollicking fiddle rave-ups “Trouble in Your Mind” and “Cindy Gal”) to self-penned works (the particularly terrific “Kissin’ and Cussin’”) and stringband makeovers of modern-day works (a hip-hop influenced cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ’em Up Style (Oops!)” and Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose”). —Corey DuBrowa

67.The-Waterboys.jpg 39. The Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues (1988)
While folk-rock thrived in the U.S. during the 1970s, The Waterboys’ blending of ’80s rock and the Celtic roots of the Irish, Scottish and English members was refreshing. When Fisherman’s Blues came out in 1988, Mike Scott and his very large band had almost completely shed their arena-rock leanings for a more traditional tour de force that name-checked Hank Williams and quoted William Butler Yeats. Sounding unlike anything that came before, it filtered old Irish tunes through a decidedly college-rock lens. —Josh Jackson

feast-wire.jpg 38. Calexico – Feast of Wire (2003)
Calexico  co-founders Joey Burns and John Convertino hear the world differently than most people. Not everyone would have imagined that surf guitar reverb would sound so at home beneath a blast of mariachi trumpet. Or that an acoustic Portuguese fado wouldn’t clash with an electric Norteño rave-up. Or that the lonesome cry of a pedal-steel guitar could flourish next to a symphony orchestra’s string section. Feast of Wire is the Tucson, Ariz., band’s masterwork of musical alchemy. While their proximity to the Mexican border is still a strong influence, Calexico raises the ante here with more song styles, instruments and collaborators. The result further proves that variety can provide just the right musical chemistry. Given the somber nature of some of the subject matter, many of the songs on Feast of Wire are unashamedly melancholic. But all are emphatically vibrant and ultimately spiritually fulfilling because of the beauty of their construction and the honesty of their execution. —John Schacht

sunset-tree.jpg 37. The Mountain Goats, – The Sunset Tree (2005)
In 2005, John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats were on the road when Darnielle learned that his abusive stepfather had died. When he started to write again, he poured his conflicting mess of feelings into The Sunset Tree, recalling how he used to turn up the “Dance Music” as “my stepfather yells at my mother / Launches a glass across the room, straight at her head.” Channelling youthful rebellion and a touch of bitter optimism, Darnielle recalls speeding away from his “broken house” to distract himself with a mixture of alcohol and women, sing-screaming, “I AM GONNA MAKE IT THROUGH THIS YEAR IF IT KILLS ME.” He again imagines a better place on “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” remembering how he once woke his stepfather up and prayed he wouldn’t break his stereo in retribution. In giving The Sunset Tree over to this man, Darnielle explores a non-linear, irrational series of reactions. By letting himself feel, it’s he can be free of them. —Rachel Brodsky

marling-speak.jpg 36. Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can (2010)
Laura Marling  had just turned 18 when she released her 2008 debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim, but it seemed like she’d already lived four or five lifetimes. By then, she had somehow digested much of British folk music along with her guitar lessons, in the process becoming world-weary enough to write lines like “The gods that he believes never fail to disappoint me” and “Don’t cry child, you’ve got so much more to live for / Don’t cry child, you’ve got something I would die for.” After touring the globe and being touted as the young queen of a new-folk revival, Marling made yet another gorgeous, melancholy, old-souled record. Despite its uncanny emotional weight, Alas has its moments of glittering girlishness and sounds at times like it was recorded in an upstairs bedroom at her parents’ house.I Speak Because I Can trades in references to broken dolls for tales of real live babies found in the forest and the yearning for a “Tap at My Window,” for the love of a “Rambling Man.” Backing band Mumford & Sons provide dirty-fingernailed accompaniment—banjos, shuddering organ and occasional brotherly backing vocals—to her blustery voice and pace-setting guitar. —Rachael Maddux

tallest-wild.jpg 35. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt (2010)
Kristian Matsson plays to his strengths on The Wild Hunt, his second album. He keeps it simple, finger-picking strings to propel his gristly vocal melodies, which feel simultaneously cavalier and carefully wrought. Though his acoustic guitar often thwacks like a snare, his songs are uncluttered by percussion, harmonized vocals or the orchestral ornaments that are so prevalent in alt-folk. The clean, galloping banjos and guitars spotlight Matsson’s pristine snarl, which slips down into powerful bass notes and reaches up and yelps on key, accentuating his ambitious, second-language lyrics: “I wasn’t born, I just walked in one frosty morn / Into the vision of some vacant mind,” he sings on “Burden of Tomorrow.” If Sondre Lerche were a bluegrass-loving goblin, he might sound a little like this. —Brian Howe

veirs-july.jpg 34. Laura Veirs – July Flame (2010)
Laura Veirs’s seventh album, released in the blustery throes of January, takes its name from a kind of peach that finds its way into farmer’s-market bins in the hottest weeks of the year—a peach, the story goes, that cured Veirs of a bout of writer’s block one steamy Portland afternoon. Still, it’s hard to imagine a better soundtrack to the chilly months of wood smoke and crackling leaves than this collection of heady, steady, pensive songs. It’s a feel-good record of the oddest sort, a melancholy meditation on happiness and its delicate transience—warmer and rootsier than her earlier work, which had a kind of cautious experimentalism. July Flame is carefully composed, ever-deepening, glinting and glowing in new ways each time it’s played. “And so let us curl up in our burrows with these songs and our own flickering July flames ’til the green shoots return and the rivers run full again. “It’s gonna take a long, long time,” Veirs sings on her resolute final track. “But we’re gonna make something so fine.” —Rachael Maddux

helplessness-blues.jpg 33. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (2011)
After their eponymous debut album earned a well-deserved standing ovation from critics, Fleet Foxes set the bar high for their sophomore album. Helplessness Blues is sweet and comforting at its worst and inspiring at its best. The foundations of many tracks are similar—the band frequently returns to the strumming, “ohhs” and “ahhs” that define opener “Montezuma”—but Fleet Foxes know how to layer sounds to add depth and make each song distinctive. The album is often about love — and the emptiness that can accompany its euphoria. —Ani Vrabel

crane-wife.jpg 32. The Decemberists – The Crane Wife (2006)
This beloved chamber-rock ensemble’s major-label debut topped our year-end list back in 2006. Forget sexy. Although people with an affinity for homesick soldiers, star-crossed lovers and cleaver-wielding gangsters will find plenty to swoon over, The Decemberists brought epic back—and in a big way. A classic Japanese folk tale is retold in the three-part title track, anchoring a bevy of gorgeous tunes, from the 12-minute prog-folk romp of “The Island” to the post-apocalyptic singalong of “Sons and Daughters.” Past releases have proven these fabulous fabulists some of the most innovative, intelligent fledglings in the indie world. But with The Crane Wife, The Decemberists really take flight. —Rachael Maddux

magnolia-electric-co.jpg 31. Songs: Ohia – The Magnolia Electric Co. (2003)
From the first swooping notes of “Farewell Transmission,” Jason Molina’s masterpiece of an album was confirmed. Hailing from the Rust Belt, Molina expertly blended the aggression of industry with a pastoral calm. On 2003’s The Magnolia Electric Co., Jeff Panall’s precise drumming and Steve Albini’s perfectly balanced engineering reflect the trends of alternative rock so prevalent in the late ‘90s and early aughts. Yet, it’s the eerie pedal-steel and warbling organ and Wurlitzer that linger, making sure that country-esque feeling remains.—Hilary Saunders

elliott-xo.jpg 30. Elliott Smith – XO (1998)
Elliot Smith was fresh off an unexpected Oscar nomination for “Miss Misery,” from Good Will Hunting, when the major labels came calling. He left Kill Rock Stars for DreamWorks, but it sure didn’t mean he went “mainstream.” In fact, Smith went the other way, turning the things you never want to experience—crippling heartbreak, aching despair, existential dread—into songs that you constantly want to listen to. Gorgeous, lush orchestrations, along with Smith’s oh-so-sad words soundtrack the stuff panic attacks are made of. Everybody doesn’t care. Everybody doesn’t understand. But XO sure does. Tragically, Smith would have just one more album in him. —Jessica Gentile

frightened-winter.jpg 29. Frightened Rabbit: The Winter of Mixed Drinks (2010)
On The Winter of Mixed Drinks, Frightened Rabbit imbue their songs with sighing keyboards, screaming layers of melodious distortion, nested rhythms, choral harmonies—all the doodads that rock bands are liable to employ circa album number three. The arrangements occasion stirring moments on the epic scale of early U2—this is burnished, stadium-sized, cloud-cover rock. The change is more one of scale than style. Hutchison’s earthy, inviting voice cuts through the vast instrumentation like a ray of sunlight. This is a different sort of intimacy: The Winter of Mixed Drinks is less of a breakup record than a post-breakup record; the more pathetic feelings having hardened into self-reliant moxie. Hutchison offers the usual wallowing introspection and off-kilter epiphanies (“She was not the cure for cancer,” he suddenly gleans midway through the album), but from a bird’s-eye view. On lead single “Swim Until You Can’t See Land,”, the singer is a tiny, bobbing speck, way out past the waves, nothing but a sea of chiming guitars and swooning strings on all sides. Frightened Rabbit wrings a winning simplicity from all this august isolation. A cardiac pulse animates many of the songs, a mightily thwacking unison at the core of all the kaleidoscopic embellishment. —Brian Howe

post-war.jpg 28. M. Ward – Post-War (2006)
Nobody’s ever going to mistake M. Ward for the life of the party. Along with his decidedly dour disposition, his penchant for hushed introspection creates a mix of ambiance and atmosphere that impacts the music more than the melodies themselves. While Post-War affirmed that stance, the occasional hint of revelry found in “To Go Home,” “Neptune’s Net,” “Chinese Translation” and “Magic Trick” provided a momentary uptick, enhancing the accessibility factor with genuine folk finesse. —Lee Zimmerman

ys.jpg 27. Joanna Newsom – Ys (2006)
The expansive lyrical content and layered allusions of Ys can be pretty hard to follow. Newsom challenges listeners to keep pace on this 47-minute, five-song set, but it’s pure joy to follow poetry this cunning and clear. Van Dyke Parks’ production, complementing Newsom’s own jaunty harp compositions, is like a film soundtrack—shading the lyrical content with various moods that range from excitement to confusion to mourning in conjunction with the story. The record takes on a mythical cast, but if Newsom is delivering a parable, she leaves it to the listener to determine the moral of the story. “Sawdust & Diamonds” is just as dense as the rest of the tracks on the record, but the song has a uniquely visual quality thanks to its lyrics. And, as in “Monkey & Bear,” there is a cinematic excitement to the tunes, a sense of adventure and mystery as the imagery plays on the inner eye. —Nate Logsdon

muchacho.jpg 26. Phosphorescent – Muchacho (2013)
Muchacho aims big. Like the lacerating kiss-offs in Blood on the Tracks, Muchacho’s lyrics map continents of separation and wandering to represent the distance between ex-lovers. Like the panoramic scope of Joshua Tree, the album’s sonic textures capture wonder and immensity while keeping both bootheels on the ground. Like the benders and busts of Grievous Angel, Muchacho pursues both sin and absolution and offers apology for neither. And like Robbie Robertson in his solo debut, Matthew Houck—Phosphorescent’s sole proprietor—adapts contemporary tools and technology to blend troubadour folk, Nashville country and Southern rock into a sound that’s fully his own. Muchacho recapitulates the moment of love’s collapse and catapults out into the companionable lonesome that waits. The contours of the physical and emotional landscape are set by the monumental “Song For Zula”—windswept by the arid atmospherics of solo Daniel Lanois and solidifying around adamantine strings, the track cycles the storm-gathering grandeur of “With or Without You” through the defiant heart of Dixie. Houck works with elements of sand and soil and gold and steam to cast love in some comprehensible form of relief. —Nathan Huffstutter

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